Huayi festival: Cancelled due to Covid-19, Citizen X marks the spot once more

Writer and star Liu Xiaoyi (left) and director Oliver Chong, on Jan 20, 2021. ST PHOTO: DESMOND WEE

SINGAPORE - 2020 may have been cancelled thanks to the Covid-19 pandemic, but some shows will get another shot at this year's Huayi - Chinese Festival of Arts. The festival, a programme mainstay at the Esplanade since 2003, returns with a smaller hybrid programme this year, including the revived Citizen X, one of the first casualties of last year's theatre shutdown. The Straits Times highlights three productions at the festival, which runs from Feb 19 to March 14.

Citizen X was bumping into the Drama Centre in March last year when the axe fell. Theatres were abruptly closed as part of measures to stem the spread of Covid-19.

Now, the show is getting a second chance with a staging at the Esplanade's Huayi - Chinese Festival of Arts from Feb 19 to 22. Writer and star Liu Xiaoyi, 38, says ruminatively of its comeback: "It feels like a long pause. I didn't think that much of the closure because I knew one day we would stage it."

Director Oliver Chong, 44, is surprised by Liu's reaction. "I did not think that we would even have a chance to restage."

He adds with a laugh: "He's an optimist. I'm a pessimist."

Despite their different outlooks, the duo have been best friends for almost two decades and Citizen X is the latest in their series collaboration, which began with 2013's Citizen Pig and continued with 2018's Citizen Dog.

Liu says the trilogy started as a simple desire to work together.

This last instalment is inspired by Liu's personal family history. He knew that his grandfather Liu Shuo Tian came to Singapore in the 1920s.

As a migrant himself - he came to Singapore in 1998 as a 16-year-old -he felt there was a story to be told in the parallel tales of migration.

"If you look back at the history, the 1920s was the first peak of Chinese coming to Singapore," he says.

"The second peak is the 1990s to the present. These periods are exactly the same during which my grandfather and I came to Singapore."

While his grandfather spent only two years in Singapore, Liu has stayed. Asked why, he says: "I also don't know."

But Singapore is his home. "I bought an HDB (flat), so you tell me," he says with a chuckle.

Citizen X, like the previous instalments, explores issues of identity and citizenship. Chong, who also went to China to research his ancestry for his award-winning one-man play Roots (2012), accompanied Liu to his home town of Jieyang to interview the latter's family.

The series collaboration started as a simple desire to work together. ST PHOTO: DESMOND WEE

Liu says jokingly: "We went for two weeks to do interviews and eat some good food."

Chong was conscious of the fact that this was Liu's story to tell. His contribution as director was to help Liu tell the story effectively and cope with performing solo.

"It helps giving notes that are useful for the actor because the actor essentially cannot see himself," he says. "There's nobody in the space, no other characters to bounce off from. Stamina is required for an actor staying there on stage for so many minutes. It's very lonely and very draining. I can understand how he feels."

Their long friendship, says Liu, helped tremendously. "I can be vulnerable. I trust him 200 per cent."

Chong also advised Liu on language usage. To be authentic, Liu would have had to tell the entire story in Teochew, his mother tongue. But Chong noted that it would be a tough linguistic hurdle for a Singaporean audience. So the play is now told in a mix of Teochew, Teochew-accented Mandarin as well as a more neutrally accented Mandarin.

Differences in language can be divisive but here, it helps ignite a conversation. As Liu says: "If we can sit down and have a conversation, then labels are no longer important."

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